For most of my life, there have been things about my inner, emotional world that didn’t make sense to me. I had some experiences and memories I could not explain. Recently, I’ve gotten clarity on a few of these.
They involve teenage Jehovah’s Witness girls being groomed by older men.
I was fortunate to not have the fate several of my childhood friends had growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness. At least, as far as I can tell. I don’t answer unequivocally “no” when asked if I was sexually assaulted, because I’m just not certain, and I have some memories that just don’t add up.
Recently, I had a conversation with my father. He told me that a “brother” had died. An immediate ICK reaction flooded my body. And I remembered something I’d apparently blocked out decades ago.
At 16, I was a pioneer. (This is someone who devotes full-time hours to the public ministry work that Jehovah’s Witnesses engage in.)
There was a single, divorced man in my congregation who had two middle-school age kids. I don’t remember his exact age, but he had to be at least 30.
I sometimes picked up the man’s daughter, who was around 13 at the time. She was studying the Bible with a friend of mine in preparation for baptism. I would often go along on the Bible study. This girl was what JWs refer to as a “spiritual orphan” because her mother wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness.
I liked the girl, she was sassy AF, a little rebellious, precocious and whip-smart. She had qualities I wished I could display.
I don’t know if this bit of familiarity gave this grown man license or if he was arrogant enough to think I would be interested in his old (sorry, but when you’re 16/17, a man in his 30’s is CRUSTY and OLD) ass. But, he asked me out.
I don’t recall telling my parents. I do remember being completely GROSSED OUT.
When I mentioned this to my dad on the phone, I don’t think he believed me. The thing is, it wasn’t the only time a grown-ass man hit on me, a CHILD while I was in the Jehovah’s Witness cult.
The other time, it was a clearly mentally unstable man who was new to the cult. He had been baptized and made rapid “progress”, then began partaking of Memorial emblems, meaning he believed he was one of the 144,000 who, according to Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, will go to heaven. (JWs teach that the overwhelming majority achieve salvation/everlasting life to a paradise Earth that will be restored to paradise, versus all good people going to heaven as most Christian denominations believe.)
The reason I say this man was mentally unstable is because it was clear from one glance that something was “off” about him. He gave the local body of elders a lot of trouble, and there was a collective groan when his name was mentioned. Everyone “knew” he was suffering from a personality disorder or mental illness.
He was also considerably older than me, and called me up on the phone to ask permission to date me. I was under 18 at the time.
I “forgot” these incidents, but my body did not. I had trauma residing there, that showed itself in some unfortunate ways. Looking back, these things make absolute sense, but when they were occurring, I didn’t know the reasons why.
One day when I was 16 or so, two young men, friends of mine, came to my house. They sat at my dining room table and talked with my mom for an hour or two. These young men were probably harmless – I’d known them my entire life, their mother was my mom’s friend, and I’d spent lots of time at their home.
Yet, I was instantly terrified. My body was flooded with panic the entire time they were in my home. I refused to come out of my room while they sat and talked to my mother. I listened, frozen, at the door trying to figure out what they wanted and why they were there.
This episode made no sense to me, but now I know I was afraid my parents would coerce me into marrying one of them. People familiar with Jehovah’s Witnesses would likely argue that JWs don’t do arranged marriages. And yet.
I’ve read many stories in the exJW Reddit about this very thing happening to other teenage girls.
Being groomed by much older men, and coerced marriages do happen inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s not accurate to say that JWs don’t arrange marriages, because while there is no official policy, it absolutely DOES happen.
Parents sometimes set up their teenage daughter with a “spiritually strong” JW man who has a position of authority in the congregation. Since the only way a woman in the organization has any power is by marrying someone with authority, there’s a big incentive to do so. A label like “elder’s wife” carries clout in a misogynistic, paternalistic, patriarchal, controlled environment like this cult.
The young girl, being ignorant about relationships due to being raised in a cult, follows along in compliance because she fears the disapproval of her parents. She also knows the only way she’ll be able to have sex is inside marriage. (The result of this is a lot of unhappy, sexually incompatible marriages, but she doesn’t know this yet.)
If she refuses the advances of a JW man in power, she may face disciplinary action that can be trumped up by him. Since he’s male, and has “scriptural responsibilities” in the congregation, he’ll be believed above her. If any sexual coercion or abuse happens and she complains about it, she’s likely to be disciplined and shunned, instead of getting justice.
Fast forward a few decades. I’m now a grown woman with teenage daughters. I’ve seen men Jehovah’s Witness behave inappropriately towards my daughters and daughter-in-law before we left the cult. My daughter-in-law was being actively groomed by her JW employer. She recorded some of his creepy, suggestive conversation on her phone. She doesn’t dare approach the elders because they won’t believe her, she’s disfellowshipped, and therefore her testimony is untrustworthy to them.
So, my fear and panic was a completely logical response, I just didn’t allow myself to believe so at the time.
One sad result of this was that, I sabotaged relationships with kind, sweet young men for no valid reason. When my body would go into panic mode, a trauma response, I wouldn’t know how to explain it. So I would blame the relationship, thinking something was wrong with it, and end things. I hurt people accidentally.
In hindsight, I now know that there was nothing wrong with those young men or the relationships, it was the trauma that lived inside my body from being raised in a cult, having my boundaries and reality violated over and over on a daily basis, and creepy experiences of being groomed by much older men and seeing so much sexual abuse of children around me.